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Interstellar Inquiries: The 100 Earths Project with John Brewer

Sports Editor? Staff Writer? Jana Jaran attends a Columbia University Public Outreach lecture lead by astronomy researcher John Brewer about methods of finding planets in space and what the discovery of Earth-like planets mean for our future. 

Every other Friday during the school year, Columbia Astronomy Public Outreach hosts lectures conducted by accomplished and interesting astronomers followed by rooftop stargazing. Yesterday, I attended a lecture by Dr. John M Brewer, an astronomy researcher with a Ph.D. from Yale University, who discussed his work on the 100 Earths Project.

Brewer started by explaining that researchers have been searching for planets in outer space for a very long time, but, compared to bright shiny stars, planets (and especially Earth-like planets) are “small, rocky, and dark” which makes the job pretty difficult.

In 1961, however, radio astronomer Dr. Frank Drake came up with the Drake Equation which identified an important idea about finding planets. One of the variables in the Drake Equation has to do with the fraction of stars in our galaxy that have surrounding planets.

Eventually, using stars to find planets became possible because of huge technological advances in astronomy equipment. Knowledge about the nature of planetary orbits combined with powerful telescopes and super precise instruments has allowed astronomers to determine the radial velocities of more than 800 planets.

Brewer talked about the exciting future of two new radial velocity detecting instruments, the EXPRES in Arizona and ESPRESSO in Chile, but he also mentioned the difficulties astronomers still face due to technological and astrophysical challenges. Even with all of the research conducted on finding planets, these “small rocky worlds” remain difficult to find.

Brewer ended the lecture by directing our focus to a potential extension of his research. The Drake Equation is about more than just the fraction of stars that have planets nearby— it also is about the possibility of life on these planets.

The search for Earth-like planets is important because Earth’s unique characteristics including its proximity to the sun allow it to sustain life. So how many of these 100 Earth-like planets estimated to be discovered are habitable? Hopefully, the answer is within reach.

Unfortunately, the weather was too cloudy for stargazing yesterday, but there were some gorgeous photos of the night sky in Dr. Brewer’s presentation which just about made up for it.

this big pupin auditorium via Jana Jaran

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